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gut-friendly foods: fermented vegetables

The 8 Most Gut-Friendly Foods On The Planet

A well-functioning gut is a beautiful thing. When your GI tract is healthy, you’re likely to have regular bathroom habits, absorb sufficient nutrients from your food, and live free of belly pain. A happy gut can extend benefits to other areas of your health, too! Increasingly, research shows the gut microbiome can influence mental health, heart health, and brain function, among other things.

A thriving gut depends on the trillions of bacteria that live in it. So how do you make your tummy a welcoming home for the good bugs but not the bad ones? Start by filling it with foods that are high in fiber, naturally rich in beneficial bacteria, and full of antioxidants to lower inflammation. Research shows this trifecta of qualities creates an environment where healthy microbiota can live in harmony. 

Not sure where to start? Here are some of the best foods for GI health.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Shaun Kennedy, N.D., is a naturopath and staff physician of digestive disorders and metabolic diseases at Sonoran University. Gaby McPherson, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian. Bonnie Newlin, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.L.T., is a registered dietitian and the founder of Crave Nourishment. Steph Magill M.S., R.D., C.D., F.A.N.D., is a registered dietitian and the owner of Soccer Mom Nutrition. Julie Balsamo, M.S., R.D.N., is a registered dietitian and the founder of Nutrition By Julie.

1. Fermented Foods

By now, you’ve probably heard the buzz that fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi do your gut good. According to 2021 research from Stanford University, incorporating fermented items into your diet increases microbiome diversity and decreases inflammatory proteins.

Ever wondered why exactly these slightly sour foods are so good for digestive health? First of all, there’s the fact that they’re high in beneficial bacteria known as probiotics. But that’s not all. “Fermentation is a digestive process that humans don’t do very well on our own. This process is carried out by microbes, including those in the gut, and can help provide access to nutrients and improve the digestibility of certain foods,” explains naturopath Shaun Kennedy, N.D., staff physician of digestive disorders and metabolic diseases at Sonoran University. “Fermented foods undergo this digestion outside of the body, making their nutrition more accessible when consumed.” In other words, the fermentation process does some of the work of making these foods extra easy to digest.

Read More: How to Pickle and Ferment Your Own Foods

If you want to support gut health, all sorts of fermented foods deserve a place in your diet—as long as they’ve been properly prepared and haven’t been heated to high temperatures. “As the microbes are still living in fermented products, you’ll want to avoid cooking them if you’re looking for the probiotic benefits,” Kennedy says.

2. Berries 

Perfect for smoothies, desserts, and solo snacking, berries are an easy way to show your gut some love. “Berries—including cranberries, blackberries, and raspberries—get their pretty pigments from the phytonutrients they contain, which include anthocyanins, flavanols, and phenolic acids,” says dietitien Gaby McPherson, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N. “These work as antioxidants and help lower oxidative stress and inflammation, which often drive disease, including in the gut.”

That’s not the only reason berries make good gut food! Recent research suggests that berries may promote gut health by supplying prebiotic fiber that helps good bacteria survive and multiply, McPherson adds.

3. Bananas

While you’re making that tasty berry smoothie, toss in a banana, too! According to Kennedy, bananas are also rich in prebiotic fiber. You might even reach for a less-ripe ‘nana, as these are especially high in resistant starch (As its name suggests, this type of starch resists digestion, passing through the small intestine and fermenting in the large intestine, where it feeds good bacteria.) In animal studies, resistant starch has increased the diversity of intestinal flora and promoted weight loss.

4. Artichokes 

On the topic of prebiotic fiber…artichokes are possibly the best-kept secret for gut health out there. These spiky veggies are high in inulin, a prebiotic fiber known for increasing levels of beneficial bacteria in the belly. Try marinated artichokes in salads or on charcuterie boards, or try making artichoke pesto.

5. Onions

Onions may not be the best food for your breath, but they’re great for your gut! Like artichokes, onions contain high levels of prebiotic fiber. That said, if raw onions cause gas or bloating for you (this happens because their fructose content breaks down in the gut, releasing air in the process), cook them before eating. According to the Cleveland Clinic, cooked onions are less likely to cause GI problems.

6. Beans and Legumes

We all know that beans and legumes are high in fiber—so it’s no surprise these foods have benefits for the GI tract. “Eating fiber-rich prebiotic foods, such as beans and lentils, provides nourishment for your microbiome, enhancing your overall gut health,” says dietitian Bonnie Newlin, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., C.L.T., founder of Crave Nourishment. In fact, a 2022 study showed that people who incorporated more beans in their diets had more beneficial gut bacteria and higher levels of helpful short-chain fatty acids in their colon.

Beans and legumes tend to get a bad rap for their gas-forming tendencies—but Kennedy says you can take steps to reduce potential issues. “Beans, for instance, should be soaked for around 12 hours, and cooked thoroughly for about two hours,” he says. “Among other benefits, this process reduces a sugar called raffinose, which is a significant contributor to the gas and bloating some people experience.”

7. Whole grains

Whole grains nourish your gut with fiber and antioxidants. A 2015 study, for example, concluded that whole grain consumption improved the microbial profile in the gut. Whole-wheat bread, brown rice, barley, sorghum, rye, and oatmeal are all smart choices. “Oatmeal, in particular, is a prebiotic food that contains compounds that support the growth of good bacteria in your gut,” says dietitian Steph Magill M.S., R.D., C.D., F.A.N.D., owner of Soccer Mom Nutrition.

8. Bone Broth

Bone broth often gets touted for its significant protein content, so you might not realize that it’s a gut-friendly food, too. “Bone broth is rich in collagen, gelatin, glycine, and glutamine, all of which help to support gut lining integrity and overall gut health,” says dietitian Julie Balsamo, M.S., R.D.N., of Nutrition By Julie. She suggests subbing bone broth for water in rice dishes, using it as the base of soups, or sipping on it straight as a hot beverage.   

Going the Extra Mile for Gut Health

The right foods are an excellent start for a healthy digestive system, but you might consider going the extra mile with certain supplements—such as probiotics or digestive enzymes—too.

Though it’s important to get to the bottom of any digestive disruptions, digestive enzymes can help improve digestion temporarily if you’re having issues, according to Kennedy.

Read More: Which Type of Probiotic Supplement Is Right For You? 

Probiotics, on the other hand, might be a longer-term solution. “Probiotic supplements may be a good idea for most people, given the fact that our fermented food consumption is lessened, and we have reduced access to healthy microorganisms through activities like gardening and farming,” says Kennedy. That said, since different people may need different strains of probiotics depending on their specific health needs, it’s always a good idea to talk to a health professional about the right supplement for you.

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